April 12, 2019 / 8:26 AM / 2 months ago

Noise of fighting echoes through Tripoli as thousands flee homes

TRIPOLI, April 12 (Reuters) - Gunfire and blasts echoed through downtown Tripoli in the small hours of Friday as the eastern Libyan LNA force pushed against the forces of the internationally recognised government around the disused international airport and the Ain Zara district.

Fighting between the eastern force of General Khalifa Haftar and troops loyal to the Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj has displaced 9,500 people in the capital, the United Nations said.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had made contingency plans in case “thousands if not hundreds of thousands” were displaced.

Haftar’s push on Tripoli in Libya’s northwest is the latest turn in a cycle of factional violence and chaos dating back to the 2011 uprising that overthrew veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

After sweeping up from the desert south, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has have been held up in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, about 11 km (7 miles) from the centre.

The U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said 3,500 people had left their homes in Tripoli in the previous 24 hours, and that 90 percent of those who had requested evacuation could not be moved to comparatively safer areas.

Late on Thursday, the European Union urged the LNA forces to stop their offensive.

As well as the toll on civilians, the renewed conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, increase migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, derail a U.N. peace plan and encourage Islamist militants to exploit the chaos. Libya is a main transit point for migrants who have poured into Europe in recent years, mostly trafficked by smuggling gangs.

The LNA forces swept out of their stronghold in eastern Libya to take the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year before heading towards Tripoli, where Serraj’s U.N.-backed government sits.

Dr Syed Jaffar Hussain, WHO representative in Libya, told a Geneva news briefing by telephone from Tripoli that he feared outbreaks of tuberculosis, measles and diarrhoeal diseases due to poor sanitation, especially among the displaced.

The WHO said it had two weeks of medical supplies available for Tripoli’s hospitals.

Haftar was among the officers who helped Gaddafi seize power in a 1969 coup before parting ways with him later. Critics call Haftar another strongman in Gaddafi’s mould.

He has so far resisted U.N. pressure to accept a power-sharing settlement to stabilise Libya, using his leverage as an ally of the West in attempts to stem Islamist militancy in North Africa. (Additional reporting by Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Kevin Liffey )

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